School bus driver shortage is an ongoing challenge for the industry that has gotten worse recently, SBF research has found. Here, we share best practices in tackling the problem, from boosting recruiting efforts to addressing absenteeism.

1. Offer a signing bonus

Signing bonuses aren’t limited to professional athletes — although the amount will be a bit smaller in the case of school bus drivers.

New Caney (Texas) Independent School District recently implemented a sign-on bonus of $250 for a driver with no CDL and $500 for a driver with a CDL.

“They receive half of the money after they complete training and the other half after six months of continuous employment,” says Josh Rice, director of transportation services, noting that the sign-on bonuses as well as referral bonuses helped the department become fully staffed.

Consulting firm Transportation Advisory Services (TAS) suggests a similar signing bonus program:

• For new drivers — $100 when they complete their training, another $100 after 90 days, and a final $100 after 180 days.
• For experienced, licensed drivers — $200 when they start, another $100 after 90 days, and a final $100 after 180 days.
• For both sets of drivers — another $200 bonus at the end of their first year.

2. Offer a referral bonus

The transportation department at Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools recently launched an employee referral program. Josh Davis, director of pupil transportation, explains that a current employee who refers a new full-time driver will receive a $250 bonus once the new driver completes training and 90 days of service. Referring a substitute driver earns a $100 bonus.

This and other recruiting efforts are paying off. Davis said in September that his department had been getting a surge of applicants, and they had hired well over 100 bus drivers during the past 12 months.

New Caney Independent School District also implemented referral bonuses. District employees get $250 for referring a driver with no CDL and $500 for referring a driver with a CDL. “The person who refers receives half of the money after the driver completes the training and the other half after six months of continuous employment,” Rice says.

Nicole Portee of Denver Public Schools says that route optimization can help address driver shortage.

Nicole Portee of Denver Public Schools says that route optimization can help address driver shortage.

3. Optimize school bus routing

Denver Public Schools has dealt with driver shortage by conducting an optimization of its school bus routes. This enabled the district to reduce its number of routes while addressing staffing issues.

“I believe that every two to three years, districts could benefit from this type of activity to address the route situation versus approaching it from a staffing perspective,” says Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation services. “While we still do need to hire, our need is not as significant as it [would be] had we not gone through this optimization.”
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Transportation staff members at New Caney (Texas) Independent School District use business cards to help in recruiting drivers.

Transportation staff members at New Caney (Texas) Independent School District use business cards to help in recruiting drivers.

4. Print business cards

Transportation staff members at New Caney Independent School District use business cards to help in recruiting drivers. One side of the card says “Now Hiring Bus Drivers,” with a picture of a row of yellow buses. The other side provides details about the job, including the flexible hours and benefits, and it gives potential applicants the district’s web address and phone number.

Tuscaloosa (Ala.) City Schools has also printed “Bus Drivers Needed” business cards to hand out and has posted colorful banners at schools.

5. Hold job fairs

Last school year, Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools peaked at a 6.9% vacancy rate for school bus drivers. To target that issue, the transportation department teamed up with human resources and began hosting job fairs throughout the county.

The result: At the beginning of this school year in August, “We had no driver vacancies — what an awesome feeling — and a class of 23 being trained at the same time,” says Jim Beekman, who helmed the Orange County Public Schools transportation department until October, when he moved to Hillsborough County.

Even after school started, the district kept the job fairs coming. One in September attracted 58 applicants, and more fairs were held during the fall.

Beekman notes some of the steps that helped make the jobs fairs effective:

• Orange County Public Schools uses an online application process, so a bank of computers is provided at the fairs, with human resources staff standing by to help applicants navigate the process.
• Before the fairs, the district informed potential attendees of what information would be needed so they could bring it with them.
• In some fairs, drug testing and fingerprint personnel have been brought in to perform those functions on-site.
• District teams perform on-site interviews.

In July, 12 school districts and one contractor in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area conducted their first joint job fair. The event, held at and spearheaded by Kent ISD, drew more than 175 prospective bus drivers and attendants.

6. Shorten hire time

At Orange County Public Schools, one of the goals of the transportation department’s work with human resources was to shorten the time-to-hire process for school bus drivers.

“We called 25 applicants from the previous year that never made it to training,” Beekman says. “The No. 1 response from them [for why they didn’t continue] was it was too long of a process to get hired — people need jobs but they need them today. Most school districts are wired to hire teachers, and it takes a team approach to get drivers and monitors hired.”

One effort that helped get potential drivers hired quicker: The district began offering free training classes to teach applicants how to get their CDL learner’s permit.

7. Contribute to health insurance costs

To help in recruiting and retaining school bus drivers, TAS recommends that operations offer some sharing of health insurance costs to make it an attractive benefit.

“For example, if you pay 90% of the employee premium and 50% of the family premium for full-time employees, offer prorated premium contributions to part-time employees,” TAS advises. “If a full-time employee works 40 hours a week, then offer a driver who works 20 hours a week 50% of the premiums provided to full-time employees.”

8. Propose a pay raise to the board

To address a school bus driver shortage at the beginning of this school year, Huron (S.D.) School District targeted driver pay.

“Our business manager approached the school board and requested a raise in driver pay in an effort to attract more drivers,” says Rex Sawvell, director of buildings, grounds and transportation. “Our school board concurred and raised our daily pay from $18 an hour to $25 an hour and also added a sign-on bonus of $250 for substitute drivers and $500 for full-time drivers.”

The board at Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools also recently approved an increase in school bus driver salary to make the district more competitive in the region.

9. Advertise

There are numerous ways to advertise openings for school bus drivers. Dallas County (Texas) Schools has promoted its open positions in newspaper ads, on billboards and even in church bulletins.

TAS cites online advertising as an efficient way to reach prospective drivers. That could include postings on the school district website, via social media such as Facebook, or on employment websites.

Miguel Rivera started driving for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools in 2005.

Miguel Rivera started driving for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools in 2005.

10. Lessen English requirements

Years ago, Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools stopped requiring school bus drivers to have great English skills. The district decided that driver candidates would only need to have enough English capacity to be safe and functional in the job. This was a significant help in recruiting drivers.

“We now have a wonderfully diverse driver and attendant population that do a great job. … And, no driver shortage!” says Todd Watkins, director of transportation. “There are occasional communication difficulties, but they seem to work out fine when approached with patient listening.”

Candidates’ English skills are assessed during the interview process and during training. They have to take the CDL learner’s permit test in English, although Motor Vehicle Administration staff will read it to them if they can’t read English.

“By the time they do all that in English, we figure they are pretty functional,” Watkins says. “We do turn some away at the interview stage if we are unable to communicate with them.”
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School buses with banners that serve as billboards are stationed throughout Hanover County, Virginia.

School buses with banners that serve as billboards are stationed throughout Hanover County, Virginia.

11. Identify key demographics for drivers

In recruiting school bus drivers, it can be helpful to target certain segments of the population for whom the job can be a good fit.

David Pace, director of the office of transportation services at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, says that his department often works to attract driver applicants from the retired population and military spouses, among others.

TAS recommends trying to recruit people who have just retired from the military: “Recent military retirees make great drivers, as they are often looking to supplement income without the need for benefits. Try www.military.com to reach this resource.”

12. Double up or double back

When not enough substitute drivers are available, Virginia Beach City Public Schools uses a couple of tactics to cover the routes of absent drivers:

• Double up lighter buses with students from the absent driver’s bus. The district uses “tri-driver plans,” in which three drivers in the same general route area are grouped. “When one of the drivers in the group is out and no substitute is available, the other two drivers readily know they divide the students of the absent driver and transport them to school or home from school,” Pace says.
• Double back a bus to transport the students of an absent driver. “This system is used when the double-up system would put too many students on the bus to transport safely,” Pace says, noting that the drawback of this practice is that it “will cause the bus to run late to every school assignment that follows in the tier.”

13. Offer supplementary work

The hours available for driving a school bus may not provide enough pay for some people, but supplemental work within the school district can be a convenient way to bolster their income.

Sawvell of Huron School District is a proponent of this approach. “I offer drivers the opportunity to work in other areas of the school district, such as custodial or grounds-keeping work, on an as-needed basis,” he says.

Sam Bailey of Biloxi (Miss.) Public Schools points to the importance of supporting drivers in student discipline issues.

Sam Bailey of Biloxi (Miss.) Public Schools points to the importance of supporting drivers in student discipline issues.

14. Support school bus discipline

A crucial part of retaining school bus drivers is fostering a good work environment. Sam Bailey, director of transportation at Biloxi (Miss.) Public Schools, points to the importance of supporting drivers in student discipline issues on the bus.

“Our district school administrators enforce bus rules, [and the transportation] department tracks all referrals to assure follow-up and appropriate actions taken,” Bailey says, also noting that the local police department assists in removing fighting students from the bus and, when needed, arresting parents or guardians for disorderly conduct.

15. Get current drivers to help recruit

Current school bus drivers can be great resources in promoting the job in the community. Orange County Public Schools has held recruiting competitions among the district’s drivers. The winner received a custom district jacket. The drivers have also been paid for recruiting time.

At Tuscaloosa City Schools, potential drivers have been shown a video in which existing employees discuss why they enjoy being a school bus driver.

16. Provide incentives in pay, hours

At Boulder (Colo.) Valley School District, a combination of pay incentives and guaranteed hours has helped in dealing with school bus driver shortage. Route drivers are guaranteed 20 hours per week, or four hours per day on short weeks. They also get full benefits and a stipend during the summer (instead of vacation). The district provides stipends of 25 cents per hour for driving special-needs routes, 50 cents per hour for driving mountain routes, or 75 cents per hour for mountain special-needs routes.  

Relief drivers — in other words, drivers who don’t have an assigned route — are guaranteed 30 hours per week and receive a stipend of 30 cents per hour, plus the extra 50 cents per hour when they drive a mountain route.
 
“Our pay structure is pretty complicated, but it does help in driver recruitment and retention,” says Bob Young, director of transportation.

Bob Young says that Boulder Valley School District's pay structure helps in driver recruitment and retention.

Bob Young says that Boulder Valley School District's pay structure helps in driver recruitment and retention.

17. Promote the job to parents

Hanover County (Va.) Public Schools has used robo calls to parents in the county to let them know about school bus driver vacancies. Also, Michael Ashby, the district’s director of transportation, says that “whenever I speak with parents, I ask if they are interested in working for transportation.”

18. Use buses as billboards

To help attract driver candidates, Hanover County Public Schools has yellow buses serving as billboards throughout the county. These buses are adorned with banners proclaiming “Now Hiring School Bus Drivers,” along with the transportation department’s phone number. Also, large magnetic signs with the same information as the bus banners have been attached to district staff vehicles.

19. Have staff ready to drive

When there aren’t enough school bus drivers to cover routes, other staff members should be prepared to pitch in. At some districts, even the transportation director will get behind the wheel when needed, which can have the added bonus of boosting morale and trust among the drivers.

Willie Tarleton, director of transportation services at Midland (Texas) Independent School District (ISD), says that all transportation staff members, including technicians, should have their CDL certification and other requirements for driving a school bus. He also recommends developing an in-house certification program to recruit drivers from the bus monitor staff.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools dispatches supervisors and other CDL-holding employees, including technicians and office associates, to cover routes when needed.

“Using these employees does take away from their time on their regular job requirements, but [it] is implemented when driver absenteeism is extremely high,” Pace says.

20. Reward perfect attendance

Encouraging and rewarding stellar attendance can help school bus operations in dealing with driver shortage. Greenville County (S.C.) Schools launched an attendance reward program, which is one of numerous ideas implemented at the district over the past year to combat driver shortage (other efforts include holding job fairs and increasing drivers’ hourly wages). In the attendance program, for every 45-day period of the school year, drivers with perfect attendance earn a reward. Local businesses donate coupons for free items to give to the drivers with perfect attendance.

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